Source: Review copy
Published: 2 November 2017 by Orion
What if your child committed the ultimate crime?
When a rural village school building collapses, only one child survives: Dog Evans.
To his own mother and father, Dog becomes a daily reminder of their survivor’s guilt.
To the other parents he is a hated and feared emblem of their unbearable loss.
Now, seven years after the tragedy, Dog’s parents have abandoned him.
And with no one to protect him, the broken community’s desire for justice soon becomes unstoppable…
Well, I feel utterly wiped out after reading this novel. I’m also feeling unsettled and with one huge question in my mind – is it ever possible to have peace of mind, if that peace is predicated on someone else’s murder?
Barry Gornell’s book is a chilling, dark and atmospheric tale of a boy named Dog who was the last child left standing after an horrific event killed all the other 21 children in a school.
From the beginning, this story reminded me of what it must have been like for the parents of the 116 Aberfan children killed in that mining disaster in 1966.
This is a bleak and harrowing story that will chill your bones and make you yearn for log fires, hot chocolate with whipped cream and a puppy to cuddle.
Set in winter in an unnamed remote village in in Scotland, this novel alternates between two timelines; the present day and seven years earlier approaching the disastrous event.
Douglas ‘Dog’ Foster is a young man, living alone on the edge of the village on marshland. At the beginning of the book we learn that he is a boy with moist skin that appears translucent, with grey eyes and salmon lips. His arm is grafted with pigskin. The imagery is of cold, rot, decay and disrepair.
Dog was never a popular child and the village is both appalled and disgusted that he was the only survivor. Knowing he was an odd child has not helped the attitude of villagers, and Dog has spent the last seven years living alone and being ostracised and demonised by the community.
Then, seven years after the disaster, on the anniversary of the children’s deaths, when the villagers form their annual pilgrimage to the school to commemorate the dead with a candlelight vigil beside the 21 trees they have planted in memoriam, they are confronted by a sight that horrifies them.
For Dog is there, making a display of himself. For the community, this act of heresy is an outrage too far. One of the bereaved parents strikes him dead and the others implicate themselves with the crime by silently burying him.
It is now that we begin to see the impact that their children’s deaths have had on the individuals in this community. Marriages have been wrenched apart, alcohol, drugs and sex have all played their part in tearing at the moral fabric of this community and even the priest has not been immune from the septic nature of the poison the seeps through this place.
Then someone burns down Dog’s cottage and another body is found. Dog’s parents are told of his death and they return to understand his death after 7 years of staying away and leaving him to fend for himself.
How they interact with those who used to be their neighbours and friends;why they left and whether they can find out and handle the truth about their son’s death is where the heart of this story lies.
This is not an easy book to read and it asks some extraordinarily hard questions of the reader.
What’s really interesting about the prose here is that it is completely non-judgemental, yet you find yourself judging your own thoughts and feelings as well as those of the protagonists.
This is a harsh, uncompromising and unflinching book which is a compelling and fascinating study in morality and redemption. That Gornell is a hugely talented novelist is beyond doubt. The Wrong Child will stay with me for a long time to come. Originally published by Freight Books, Orion has picked this book up and hopefully it will now receive the wider audience it so richly deserves.
But quick, someone, pass me that puppy.
About Barry Gornell
Barry Gornell was born in Liverpool and now lives on the West Coast of Scotland. He is a novelist/screenwriter, ex fire-fighter, truck driver and book shop manager. His short films Sonny’s Pride and The Race were broadcast on STV. Graduating from the University of Glasgow Creative Writing Masters programme in 2008, he was awarded a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Bursary in 2009. His short fiction has been published in the Herald newspaper, Let’s Pretend, 37 stories about (in)fidelity, Gutter 03 and Gutter 04. The Healing of Luther Grove was his first novel followed, published in 2012 by The Wrong Child in 2016.